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THEATER REVIEWS

'On Borrowed Time' Finds Whimsy in Mortality

November 11, 1996|DON SHIRLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mr. Brink, the urbane angel of death in the 1938 fantasy "On Borrowed Time," discounts "man's logic" as "the most pitiful thing about him." So don't expect logic from this parable about death. However, don't expect any awe--or fear and trembling--either.

For this is a whimsical comedy about death's role in the natural order of things. Dr. Kevorkian probably would endorse it--but so would many people who would be horrified to be in agreement with him. Paul Osborn's dramatization of Lawrence Edward Watkin's novel warms hearts by the bond between a Gramps and his small grandson, even as it allows us to ponder a dreaded subject in a relatively relaxed fashion.

Eli Simon's staging of "On Borrowed Time," opening the McCoy-Rigby season at La Mirada Theatre, keeps the heartwarming firmly in focus. The original music by Benjamin Simon is tender more than terrifying. This version of the script even includes a reassuring joke at the end of the play that some productions--such as the one at Pasadena Playhouse in 1992--delete.

It helps to have the twinkly Neil Vipond in the role of Gramps, and the youngster Cody Dorkin as the grandson Pud. They're an endearing pair whose relationship never seems synthetic.

As they conspire to protect the newly orphaned Pud from his acquisitive and prudish Aunt Demetria (deliciously disdainful Wendy Robie), their sentiments are refreshingly unsanitized. Gramps curses a blue streak (by the standards of middle America in 1938), offending his kindly wife (Edith Fields). Pud proposes that they kill mean old Aunt Demetria.

But it's not Demetria's time, Mr. Brink informs them--it's Gramps'. This means that Gramps must trap Mr. Brink in an apple tree (don't ask--the rationale is both complicated and weak), suspending death and thwarting the well-meaning effort of his doctor (John-Frederick Jones) and lawyer (Robert Machray, with a wonderfully comic deadpan) to institutionalize him, until he comes up with a plan to care for Pud.

Ron Campbell's Mr. Brink adds a few darker notes, especially as costumed by Shigeru Yaji in a double-breasted beige suit and hat reminiscent of the more fashionable Mafiosi. Campbell keeps his voice sonorous and as elegant as his outfit, yet there's a slight suggestion of something sinister in his stare.

The vividly contrasted colors of Martin Aronstein's lighting also add a hint of storminess to John Iacovelli's realistically rendered set, darkening the subtext as well as the stage. Still, considering the subject, this remains a remarkably sunny, death-affirming play.

* "On Borrowed Time," La Mirada Theatre, 14900 La Mirada Blvd., Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 2:30 p.m. Ends Nov. 24. $33. (310) 944-9801, (714) 994-6310. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

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